“Have you ever,” a reporter asked Deshaun Watson last week, “lost a game by more than one score?”
Watson said he had in high school (though he was off on the year). “Then, college, of course, none. None in the NFL,” he continued.
Having a good quarterback does not guarantee wins, and judging a quarterback by how many wins he has can be a foolish endeavor that says more about his team’s defense or his supporting cast, but Watson’s streak is not an accident. It has been more than five years since Watson played a full game and his team lost by more than one score. Tom Brady, probably the greatest quarterback of all time, has lost three times this season by more than one score—to the Jaguars, Lions, and Titans, none of whom made the playoffs. Watson, who led the 11-5 Houston Texans to an AFC South title, will face the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday in his first-ever NFL playoff game. Quarterback wins can be overrated—Watson’s performance is not. The Colts will try to do something each of Watson’s opponents in the NFL and college have failed to do: blow Watson out of a game.
“With Deshaun, we never feel like we’re out of the game. Even if everybody else writes us off or people turn the channel, they turn it back on, and we’re right there in the game,” Texans cornerback Aaron Colvin told reporters last week. “That’s all due to the quarterback play.”
It is an accomplishment that has eluded Alabama, Florida State, the Patriots, the Kansas City Chiefs, and Seattle Seahawks. “Whatever ‘it’ is, Deshaun has it,” said Bruce Miller, Watson’s coach at Gainesville High School in Georgia. “He’s got a mentality that he’s never out of a game. He’s so tough mentally. He’s tough physically. I saw him take some shots in high school where I thought, ‘He may not get up from that,’ and he bounced right back up—but no one understands how tough he is mentally.”
The last team to achieve the feat is Buford High School, a Georgia powerhouse that beat Watson 38-14 during his senior year.
“Since the game, it’s gotten more special because of what he’s done. It’s been great seeing that,” said Korie Rogers, a linebacker on that Buford team who plays at the University of West Georgia.
Watson has played in games where his team was blown out, but he wasn’t the primary quarterback. For instance, the Texans lost in 2017 to the Jaguars in a game that Tom Savage started. In 2014, in a 28-6 loss to Georgia Tech, Watson left in the first quarter with a knee injury. Buford was the last team to truly solve Watson at quarterback.
The game has taken on new meaning for the people involved as Watson’s career has ascended. He lost just two games over two full years as a starter at Clemson, winning a national championship in his final season in 2017. Since the Texans drafted him with the 12th overall pick, he’s played at a high level and is considered one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. He also still hasn’t been blown out like Buford blew him out.
“It is unreal to think I was coaching on the same field as that kid not too long ago,” said Buford assistant coach Bryant Appling.
The Buford-Gainesville game was the stuff of legend at the time. “It was a heavyweight fight,” said Jon Nelson, who covers high school football for Georgia Public Broadcasting and was on the game broadcast. Buford was a powerhouse—what Miller called a “football factory” that had won eight state championships since 2001 at the time and would go on to win two more after that 2013 meeting.
Both schools had a problem: No one wanted to play Buford, because they were so good, and no one wanted to play Gainesville because Watson was too good. “You’re trying to get games scheduled, and you’re running down to that 10th game, and the only ones calling you back are Buford,” Miller said. “Finally, you throw up your hands and say, ‘Oh well, I guess we’re going to play them,’ and you hope you get lucky.”
Miller was being modest. Gainesville won the matchup between the two teams the previous season and his team ended Buford’s 43-game home winning streak. Watson threw the winning touchdown off his back foot while getting hit in that game. Both teams won state titles in 2012. The rematch in 2013 was played in Gainesville’s home stadium, which Rogers called the best atmosphere he ever played in during high school. Nelson said the access road that overlooked the stadium was packed with onlookers standing on the street. When he arrived hours in advance to help with the broadcast, huge crowds of people at City Park, where Gainesville played home games, had already assembled to tailgate. It was September, so multiple Buford coaches remember how nice the weather was and the pristine state of the field.
The game was not particularly close. If you’d like, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube.
“He was kind of a one-man band,” Buford cornerbacks coach David Snell said. “He played the tuba, the trumpet, and drums. The thing about Deshaun is that he never got frustrated. He never showed his frustration in that game.”
Snell told his cornerbacks to remained plastered on their receiver no matter what happens because Watson could make any throw. Realizing Watson was the absolute focal point of the offense—that he’d either throw or run the ball—they had a middle linebacker spy on him at all times. He was already legendary, and they’d defend him accordingly.
In the previous year’s meeting, Appling said the team was so devoted to keeping Watson’s passes in front of the defense that Watson simply used the short passing game to pick Buford apart. At the time of the 2013 game, Watson was already committed to Clemson, so Buford’s coaches spent weeks preparing to defend against run-pass options, thinking that Watson was likely to start running plays from the Tigers’ playbook to get comfortable with them.
The RPO, of course, was a staple in Watson’s career going forward. He went 3-for-3 on RPO passes against the Patriots earlier this year. Buford’s defense did a better job than most NFL teams defending against Watson’s RPO game. “You can’t let your eyes wander. You have to stay with your receiver if you’ve got one, or stay with your running back, or stay in your gap,” Appling said.
This game is not important to recall because of the loss itself; in terms of talent, Gainesville could not match a Buford team with so many future college players. (“Our kids were scrappy and tough, but position by position, a lot weren’t going to go in our favor,” Miller said.) It’s important to look back on because of what the coaches saw in Watson despite his team being blown out. “His play was as good in the first quarter as it was in the fourth quarter,” Snell said. “He never faltered. Poise is his middle name. He was so calm, cool, and collected, He is so, so tough.” Watson finished the game with 206 yards on 24 of 43 attempts, with a touchdown and an interception.
He was, Appling realized in the meeting, “destined for greatness.”
Watson’s Gainesville team lost one more game—by six points to Tucker High School in the state semifinals. He was one of the greatest players Buford’s staff had ever seen, even in defeat. “He was very special for the quarterback position. You had a lot of guys like Eric Berry, guys who went on to play something else in college but played quarterback in high school because they were the best option the team had at the time,” Appling said. “Deshaun was always going to be a quarterback. From the first time we saw him play, we knew he’d be in the NFL. His poise, the way he battled.”
He has battled that way ever since.